Of all the ‘dream homes’ one might seek in Italy, none is more dreamy than a palace or a castle. Many buyers assume grand historical properties like these are just a pipe dream, far beyond the reach of mere mortals. But in terms of space and general appeal most Italian palazzi and castles offer particularly good value, often better value than many farmhouses. Italy’s grand homes come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, and a wide range of prices – making some of them more affordable than you might expect. You don’t have to buy a whole one, either, to enjoy living in the midst of grandeur. Many stately Italian properties have been divided into luxury apartments full of period features, offering an economical way to own a bit of history. Meanwhile, for buyers with more than a million euros to spend, Italy’s grand historical properties can represent a much more comfortable and colourful investment than, say, a flat in central London.
Italy enjoys one of the best architectural traditions in the world. This is reflected even in the English language, which has been inspired over the centuries to borrow countless architectural terms from the Italian tongue (balcony, terrace, corridor, arcade, parapet, balustrade, pergola, loggia, portico, cupola...). The long-standing Italian flair for the visual – from art to design to architecture to fashion – means that even the most average Italian home sports at least a modicum of architectural charm. So it’s little surprise that when Italy builds grand and beautiful, it builds very grand and very, very beautiful. What’s more, not only is Italy a superb place to find a fairytale home, it also has a famously stable property market, with no mad cycle of booms and busts.
Thanks to its wealthy past, Italy has a special abundance of elegant old buildings scattered across its varied landscapes. The aristocratic families who used to fill these wonderful buildings are no longer so large nor so wealthy, and few descendents are interested in occupying an ancestral home. So there is no shortage of interesting high-end properties available for the overseas buyer. Buyers of old Italian farmhouses have come to expect charming historical extras such as wine cellars and huge fireplaces. Buyers of grander Italian buildings can hope for rather more – exotica like private chapels, tower-rooms, courtyards, frescos, even antique pieces of furniture which vendors sometimes choose to leave with the property. Buyers of whole palazzi and of apartments within stately buildings can both hope to enjoy charming period relics and details.
To efficiently conduct your property search, it helps to be clear on the Italian lexicon of luxury. You should know that ‘palazzo’ is a term used much more widely in Italy than we English-speakers use ‘palace’. Any grand old building showing some architectural ambition can be labelled a palazzo. They’re generally found in cities, towns or villages, while an imposing building like this out in the countryside tends to be called something else – such as a villa, or an estate if it comprises a group of buildings.
‘Castle’ – or rather ‘castello’ – is another hazy term. In Italy as in Britain, it can be a self-contained fortress large or small, a former military headquarters, or even just a stately residence. Castles crop up in Italian villages, towns, and perhaps most spectacularly, out in the countryside. There are lone towers too, fortified watchpoints from an earlier age. ‘Castello’ and ‘borgo’ can both be ways of saying a small, fortified medieval settlement able to accommodate several families, and these are sometimes put on the market wholesale. In Puglia and Sicily, there’s another distinctive type of stately residence to be aware of, the ‘masseria’ – a very grand whitewashed farmhouse, often fortified, and set at the centre of an agricultural estate.
All the property types described above have one thing in common. They weren’t built yesterday. Most luxury properties appealing to foreign buyers in Italy are historical rather than modern, often hundreds of years old. But you should also remember that Italy has some wonderful modern-built luxury property too, especially in coastal areas. These are definitely worth considering. (For one thing, there will be no need for any restoration-work.) John Dillon of RealPoint Italy recommends modern luxury on the seaside of Tuscany and Liguria. “Luxury modern villas on the Tuscan and Ligurian coast are always a good investment,” he says. “Not only for capital growth but also for rentals income. Some property bargains can still be found in Sanremo or the Maremma, while Portofino and Forte dei Marmi are the most expensive places. Villas are often in stunning locations.”
Another locale for gorgeous modern coastal residences is of course Sardinia – easily one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean, and for decades a byword for holiday luxury. Fiercely protected from over-development and safeguarded against ever being spoilt by tourism, the island makes a particularly solid place to invest. As Silvia Miorini of Immobilsarda Srl points out, “Strict environmental planning regulations and building restrictions on Sardinia encourage the development of exclusive, beautifully-built estates in harmony with the surrounding environment.” In short, your plush seaside idyll on Sardinia will never be spoilt by a tower block being built next door.
But if like most buyers your dream is a home redolent with history, you should prepare yourself for having to do at least some restoration work. Fully-restored luxury historical properties are available, but they’re in the minority. Restoration can be a costly business, with a full restoration on a stately building costing about the same as your original purchase price, sometimes more. For some buyers, restoration is an ecstasy of planning and materials-shopping, a chance to design their ultimate fantasy home and watch it slowly come to life. For others, it’s a tedious headache that can’t be over soon enough.
Many estate agents have extensive experience in overseeing restorations and offer an excellent service, finding appropriate builders and craftsmen as well as project managers if required – so you can be as hands-on or hands-off as you like with your restoration. Standards of Italian craftsmanship and building work are very high, but if possible you should try to secure well-experienced artisans who have worked on similarly historic properties before. You may also need to find builders with specialist skills such as fresco restoration, stained glasswork repair, etc.
With properties like these, national heritage is often an issue and you should obviously be very respectful in how you restore. Belle Arte is a sort of Italian landmarks ministry who keep an eye on what happens to significant historical buildings. Its interest in a property gives that property a similar status to a ‘listed’ building in the UK and you’ll know if yours is one before you buy. If Belle Arte are involved, they’ll set strict limits on what you can and can’t do, and they’ll need to approve all your proposed changes before work can begin.
Rupert Fawcett of Knight Frank points out that Belle Arte’s restrictions might apply to interior or exterior elements of a property. It might be the whole building, or a few precious frescoes inside. Your estate agent will have mastered the relevant bureaucracy and will guide you through. Note that as an outsider buying up a piece of Italian history, you should experience no resentment from local people. Rupert Fawcett says that local communes are especially relieved that old properties are being restored – which they can’t afford to do themselves – and are therefore unlikely to be obstructive in granting planning permissions and so on. Obviously there will be some restrictions on what you can do, and these may differ from region to region, but you won’t meet pointless stubbornness.
But what will you do with your castle once you have it? Enjoy it, obviously. The majority of stately-residence-buyers just want a place to savour with their family and friends, perhaps offering some holiday rentals as a profitable sideline. They might even divide the property and live in one section while renting out the rest of it. Holiday rental prospects on grand properties are very good, as you might expect. Running the place as an actual hotel is another option, and some grand properties are sold ready-converted for this purpose. John Dillon of RealPoint Italy says “If you think a country estate might make an excellent five-star country club, you could be right. Estates often come with lots of land, making a golf course, tennis courts and pools an option. The size of town-centre palazzi and countryside castles and estates also suggests a commercial venture, or dividing the property into apartments and selling them off freehold.”
On the subject of town and country, be aware that while grand properties in the countryside can vary considerably in price (making some a real bargain), city-centre palazzi are rather more uniformly expensive. Some cities have their own quirks, like Venice, where a rather secretive local culture means it can be especially difficult to learn when a grand property is up for sale, unless you know the right people who will tip you off. A similar need to be well-connected applies in Florence.
With luxury properties generally, you should be aware that many are never advertised on the open market. They are often sold privately. Rupert Fawcett of Knight Frank says “It’s not necessarily harder to find a luxury property for sale. You should choose a good agent and make a personal enquiry. Some luxury properties won’t be publically on websites and so on. Both vendors and buyers of these sorts of properties appreciate a certain degree of privacy.”
Italy’s wealthy north offers a great lifestyle – with stylish cities, beautiful lakesides, great skiing, superb gastronomy, and excellent transport links. This is a highly competent, smooth-running area, with utterly reliable infrastructure and top-quality services. Populous it may be, but blessed with abundant open spaces too. Two coasts, three mountain ranges, plus a wide valley-plain ensure a sense of geographical variety, while borders with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia ensure a sense of being at the colourful heart of Europe. Innumerable ancient cities and towns offer lovely palazzo properties to consider, while out in the country there are various stately villas and grand homes for sale. Castles and fortifications across this part of Italy tend to be impressive and imposing – stout, chunky, crenellated, with bastions or even moats. Industrious northern Italians have already renovated many of their grand buildings, and so this is a great area to look for a place that needs little or no work. Buyers hoping to restore a property, meanwhile, won’t struggle to find something. As the most affluent part of Italy, expect property prices and living costs to be higher here than in the south. However, quality of life and general ease of getting things done are arguably greater too.
Italy’s fantastical watery city is a special case worthy of separate discussion. Almost all the homes on Venice’s main island could be described as ‘luxury properties’ – if only by virtue of their prices. This is one of the utmost expensive places in Italy, and holiday-home-owners here stand to make superb year-round rental returns. The city is stuffed full of gorgeous old palazzi, the most coveted of Venice’s buildings. Normally four or five storeys high, and usually but not always fronting a canal, each of Venice’s palazzi has at least one piano nobile – a floor intended for very comfortable living by the original occupants, usually one or two storeys up. (Prone to damp, and subject to boats sailing past the window, the ground floor of Venetian palazzi were originally used as warehouses and the like.) Today, when the individual storeys of many palazzi constitute separate apartments, piano nobile floors are still the most highly sought after, as they tend to have high ceilings and large elegant windows. But top floor apartments can be lovely too, especially as many feature roof terraces – providing a private outdoor space impossible on a piano nobile. Whether you’re after a whole palazzo or a single storey, be aware that all ground floors in Venice should be checked for damp and/or damp-proofed. Note that some parts of the city are lower than others (basically, the area round Piazza San Marco slopes toward the sea) and are therefore more susceptible to acqua alta or winter flooding. Amazingly, there are still plenty of palazzo properties to restore in Venice, as well as many ready-restorations.
For many buyers of luxury properties in Italy, the centre is the only place they’d consider. Tuscany, and to an only slightly lesser degree Umbria, still exert their utterly hypnotic pull on the British and American imagination. Properties in these two delicious regions are very highly prized (and highly priced) whatever their size or ambition, but a palazzo or castle in either region invites particular excitement. For this reason, luxury properties in Tuscany and Umbria are rather easier to find than elsewhere. Estate agents know that British and American buyers madly crave the two regions, and so swiftly put anything they find here onto their books – or rather, lay out all the particulars on Google-friendly websites in perfect English. No Tuscan castle or tiny fortification is going to moulder quietly away from the attention of local estate agents – almost anything will be offered for sale. Many decades’ experience in restoration projects means you’re likely to get top-quality guidance from most agents in central Italy, and that’s before taking into account the superb standard of local builders and craftsmen. As a buyer of any kind of property in Tuscany or Umbria, you’ll benefit from having no shortage of fellow non-Italians on your doorstep. Peacefully agricultural regions, they’re nonetheless highly cosmopolitan ones – with a huge number of ex-pats and international second-home owners.
With the exception of Rome and Naples, and popular resorts like Taormina on Sicily and the Amalfi Coast in Campania, Italy’s south is generally a much cheaper place for property than the north or the centre. This holds true for grand historical properties too, and the south has no shortage of them. Abruzzo is a great place to look for town-centre palazzi, and you should know that this region currently has a burgeoning tourist industry which could go very far. Molise, Basilicata and inland Calabria are wild, empty places where you could snap up a whole village offered for sale in the mountains for the price of an apartment in Venice. Puglia and Sicily are far more populous and fashionable regions and, in addition to various palazzi and fortifications, both have a distinctive property type to interest you – the masseria. Stout, elegant, whitewashed farmhouses at the centre of grand estates, masserie vary considerably in size and lavishness, but make very comfortable homes. Always more stately than rustic, many have now been converted into plush hotels or upmarket agriturismi (farmhouse-B&Bs serving local produce). The advantage of offering holiday accommodation in Italy’s far south is clear – a much longer rentals season thanks to higher temperatures. Hot sunshine, a relaxed pace of life, and, in Puglia especially, some astonishingly good cuisine all make Italy’s far south an attractive prospect.
Globe-trotting Australians Ian and Amanda Armstrong own a five-bedroom palazzo in a village in central Tuscany. It’s the third property they’ve restored in the region.
“The palazzo is about 300 years old,” Ian says, “and I think it was originally a bank manager’s house. In one of its subsequent lives it was the ‘Hotel Terricciola’. We bought it in 2006, camped in an apartment for a year, and did it up. It took us eight months to do the first three storeys, and we lived in that during the next six months while working on the garden and swimming pool and converting the cellars into kitchens and guest apartments.
“When we bought it there were 300 years’ worth of paint layers on the ceilings, with all the nice brickwork buried underneath. And the cellar had 300 years’ worth of junk in it! But it’s a lovely house, and it has real presence. We spent the same amount on renovating it as we did on buying it, which is fairly normal. We now have five bedrooms, four bathrooms, several lounge areas and a big Tuscan kitchen. The swimming pool and terraces all face perfect south. We rent out the whole property during the summer, and live in it for the other parts of the year.
“We’ve previously bought two other houses in Tuscany and done them up for ourselves. And we’ve bought homes for other people and renovated them too. In fact, people ring us up these days and say ‘Can you find us a house? And buy it? And do it up for us?’ Three of these people have bought their houses from us unseen. They’re mad!
“When it comes to renovation, of course there are always restrictions on what you can and can’t do. But in the end you find that, six times out of ten, you can negotiate your way through each issue. We managed to get a pool in our backyard in the middle of a village, for example. And while there were lots of arguments about which way it should face and how far from the fence it should be, the only thing they really didn’t want was a blue plastic liner on the inside. It had to be sand coloured. So you roll over; you compromise on some details.
“Our holiday rentals have been very successful. In both years that we’ve rented the house it’s been booked out from mid-May to mid-September. It’s truly beautiful in this part of Tuscany. We’re in the middle of a triangle drawn between Pisa, Florence and Siena. There are busy autostradas all around the edge of that triangle, but no one comes in the middle where we are, so it’s perfect. Rolling hills of grain, grapes, olives and stone fruit, with patches of forest. It’s a magnificent part of the world.” www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/p408487